HWANG’S BILLION BRILLIANT DAUGHTERS
Alice Sola Kim
Alice Sola Kim is an American writer. Her short stories can be found in Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, and Strange Horizons. “Hwang’s Billion Brilliant Daughters” was first published in Lightspeed in November 2010.
When Hwang finds a time that he likes, he tries to stay awake. The longest he has ever stayed awake is three days. The longest someone has ever stayed awake is eleven days. If Hwang sleeps enough times, he will eventually reach a time in which people do not have to sleep. Unfortunately, this can only come about through expensive gene therapy that has to be done long before one is born. Thus, it is the rich who do not have to sleep. They stay awake all night and bound across their useless beds, shedding crumbs and drops of sauce as they eat everyone else’s food.
Whenever Hwang goes to sleep, he jumps forward in time. This is a problem. This is not a problem that is going to solve itself.
* * *
Sometimes Hwang wakes to find that he’s only jumped forward a few days. The most Hwang has ever jumped is one hundred seventy years.
* * *
After a while, his daughters stop looking exactly Asian. His genes – previously distilled from a population in a small section of East Asia for thousands of years – have mixed with genes from other populations and continued to do so while Hwang slept. In fact, it all started with Hwang and his ex-wife. Hwang’s daughters are a crowd of beautiful, muddled, vigorous hybrids, with the occasional recessive trait exploding like fireworks – squash-colored hair, gray eyes, albinism.
Backward, fool, backward! You were supposed to take me backward! He wishes he could find Grishkov and scream at him, but Grishkov is dead, of course. He died sometime that night, the first night Hwang slept and jumped through days, years, decades.
* * *
Later, Hwang awakes in a world with no men. Reproduction occurs through parthenogenesis. Scientists discovered that the genes of the father are the ones that shorten human lifespan; scientists decided to do something about it.
There are people walking around who look like men, but they aren’t men. But if they look like men, walk like men, talk like men, maybe they are men?
There are new categories of gender that Hwang is unable to comprehend. Men are men. He finds a daughter who is a man, so she must actually be a son, but in Hwang’s mind – his mind that he cannot change – he is his daughter and always will be.
* * *
If you could flip through Hwang’s life like a book – which I am able to do – you would see that Hwang and women have been a calamitous combination. It is not Hwang’s fault or the women’s fault but it is unfortunate nevertheless. I wish there was someone to blame.
Once, Hwang awakes to find no one. He walks around the city for hours before seeing a woman in a coverall. She is pulling vines off the side of a building and stuffing them into a trash bag. I am paid millions a year for this work, she says.
Even for the future, that is a lot of money.
It turns out that everyone has been uploaded into virtual space, but a few people still have to stick around to make sure that buildings stay up and the tanks are clean and operational.
Later, everyone comes back, because it turns out that no one really likes uploaded life.
* * *
Hwang’s wife was a research scientist. When they divorced, Hwang was granted temporary full custody and his wife went to Antarctica. Sometimes she sent their three children humorous emails about falling asleep on the toilet because it was so cold.
When their daughters were kidnapped walking home from school, Hwang’s wife and Hwang both blamed Hwang. Their son turned fifteen, became a goth, and moved in with his mother when she returned from Antarctica.
Hwang, alone, rested his head on pillowcases permanently smudged with black. And slept for days.
* * *
Hwang says, When people are able to live forever, that is when I will get my life back. I can marry again. We can have a family. When I awake, they will still be there, old as cedars. My cedar family, planted in the living room.
I will live forever, but marriage between Hwang and I is out of the question.
* * *
Sometimes one of Hwang’s daughters will buy him new clothes, but he always wakes up wearing his old clothes. He has been frumpy, archaic, obscene, unworthy of notice, and perfectly in style – all those things, in that order.
There is a future in which skanky summer is quite popular. People walk around in bathing suits, waterproof briefs, shorts, breast-baring monokinis, sarongs – all with personal climate control units attached to the base of their necks.
Hwang emerges from his room, shivering in a wrinkled button-down sweater, and corduroy pants. That day, the rain drifts down as gently as snow, and it gets you wet so gradually that you are startled to realize it, like a boiled frog in a pot of water.
* * *
Hwang never sees his son again. Upon waking for the first time, Hwang goes out into the world and finds that his son is a computer mogul who lives in a cheesy yet terrifying house surrounded by a moat. This house has no right a ngles, and a viscous red substance continually flows down the sides and into the moat.
A security guard grabs the back of Hwang’s jacket as he backs up to get a running start so he can jump the moat. You’ll never make it, she says, and he realizes that the security guard is his daughter. She sighs, looking him up and down. There’s a shelter a few miles away. You can get a decent meal. I’ll drive you.
His daughter does not look how he’d expect, but her eyes, when she glances at him in the rear-view mirror, are familiar and bright. But I’m his father, says Hwang. She laughs.
The computer mogul, famously, has no father (and says so often). Of course. Hwang sits in the back seat like a lump. He realizes that he can no longer enumerate to himself the ways in which he has failed, that his failure has turned into an exponential number residing within him, sleek and unutterably dense and deadly.
* * *
There is a time during which Hwang’s visits are foreseen. His daughters tell him that his story has been passed down from their mothers. That their great-great-great … will come into their lives, recognizable by his blue sweater and brown corduroy pants (You dress like a fucking teddy bear, his son used to say – it felt like affection).
And then what? It is disputed. Is Hwang a force of good? Is he evil? How does he choose which daughters he appears to? Is he a matrilineal family curse? He tries to explain but it is not satisfying to his daughters.
The next time he jumps, it is a hundred years later and his story has been forgotten.
* * *
Hwang’s daughter listens to his story. When he is done, she pulls a pill case from her bag. Sounds like you need to change your point of view, she says. Try a Chip or a Barbara.
Hwang chooses a pill from the compartment labeled “Chip.” Chip and Barbara are personality construct drugs, named for the people from whom they originated.
In an hour, he feels loose. He is young, and has plenty of time to decide what he wants to be when he grows up. He doesn’t know if he wants to have kids yet. Come on, man, that’s ages away. Let’s have some fun before fun ends.
Hwang is still Chip when he goes to sleep, but it wears off in the night. He goes to find it again, to feel simultaneously free yet locked into the right time with no sense of slippage, but discovers that Chip and Barbara have been taken off the market.
* * *
In bare feet, Hwang was half an inch shorter than his wife, which seemed within the bounds of acceptability. But the world conspired to tip this delicate balance, with slanted sidewalks, with Italian heels, with poor posture. Hwang and his ex-wife each thought that the other cared more about their height discrepancy.
Your wife is white? said a sophisticated older aunt. Then your daughters will be beautiful. They were, because all daughters were beautiful; that is what Hwang believed. But Hwang was never one to be proud of their beauty. He was proud because they were brilliant, or they were about to be; they were at the age at which youthful precocity grew distinct and immutable. That is where they stayed.
* * *
Hwang always wakes up in the lab. The lab is always the same.
The time machine is a gnarled, charred mess on the floor, and the curtains are skeletons. Grishkov’s body is curled like a cat in the corner; his face is untouched like a peaceful waxwork, and for that, Hwang is grateful. Hwang sleeps on the couch, which has blackened and split like a bratwurst. As unkind and sooty as the lab is, Hwang lingers there to hold off timeshock and cultureshock.
When he needs to use the bathroom, he has to leave.
* * *
In time, Hwang begins to suspect that he is not only being pulled forward in time as he sleeps; he is also being pulled sideways in space, to parallel universes.
He thinks he has confirmation of this fact when he arrives at a time when everyone is green. (Don’t worry – there is still racism!)
Hwang sits with his daughter at a diner and tries to question her about what has happened. She explains, but language has changed, and he has trouble understanding her. Lincoln, he says. Kennedy. Were they assassinated in this timeline? She opens her mouth and taps at her translator earbud.
Doowah? she says.
* * *
Soon there are no more bananas. The iconic Cavendish banana, tall and bright and constant, has gone extinct. It is true that no one’s favorite fruit is the banana. But now that bananas as he knew them are gone, Hwang feels like he’s been trapped in a house without windows.
There is no backwards from this forwards. No more bananas for anyone ever again.
Hwang has learned a valuable life lesson: never allow someone to test a time machine on you.
No matter how certain they are it will work.
No matter how certain you are that it will enable you to fix your life and the lives of your loved ones.
But Hwang must have done some good for his later daughters; he has to have done some good; he has to.
Would it all be worth it, then?
* * *
Once, he wakes up, opens the door to the lab, and steps into water. He doesn’t know how to swim. He is a giant lead teddy bear sinking to the bottom of the ocean, and as he flails in the water, his thoughts are not about how it’s all over thank god, they are about expelling water from his lungs and if he could just take another breath please that would be perfect thank you thank you thank you let me live.
Someone grabs him and pulls him up. It’s a woman wearing a cheap waiter’s tuxedo. All around them, houses and restaurants and offices bob impossibly.
Do you have a reservation? the woman, his daughter, asks. He is exhausted. Fine, his daughter says. Wait here. I’ll bring something. Don’t touch anything. You need to be disinfected. His daughters are always so exasperated with him.
The time after that, everything is dry again. Hwang asks his daughter where the ocean is. His daughter shrugs. We put it somewhere else. It was in the way.
* * *
Hwang needs to understand that someday he will wake up and no one will be around, for good.
* * *
Once, when Hwang was thirteen, he came home to find his father strangling his mother. They rearranged themselves right as Hwang walked into the house; they must have heard his key. Stranglings can be quiet. He stood and saw his father flexing his hands and smiling, his mother wiping water out of her eyes and turning a sob into a smile, the way she turned seemingly random organic matter into food, work into money, disorder into order. If she was anti-entropic then his father was the opposite. Money for booze; so much grain goes into alcohol; carbohydrates are then wasted in the fermentation process; it is not sensible. Hwang had been sent to the library. When he came home early, it was awkward; Hwang did not know before then that the terrible could also be awkward.
His father did not murder his mother that day.
* * *
There comes a stable time, a time during which Hwang does not jump forward too crazily. He only goes a few days each time he sleeps. He sees his daughter often. He follows her around and pleads with her not to take the photon train to school; it is too fast. It is unnatural. She laughs. She goes to school in another state and her commute only takes half an hour.
Judgmental Hwang is aghast that people in the future react so placidly to risk, but he remembers things like bisphenol A and airborne toxic events and revealing your crush to a homophobe who will get so embarrassed that he will murder you, and then Hwang must admit that there were so many things in his time that he hadn’t thought to worry about.
Soon enough, his daughter becomes less amused by this great-great-great … popping up in her world every few days. Just go away, she says. Stop interloping. Get your own life. She shakes his arm off and kicks the wall. He watches as the wall slowly bulges out and undents itself.
That night he goes to sleep, vowing to find some way to protect his daughter, and he wakes up one hundred seventy years later.
* * *
Hwang wonders: when he dies, will his cells disperse and mass elsewhere to such an extent that there will be achronological patches in the air? Space dust that travels through time?
What is sleep for a single cell?
* * *
Once, I built Hwang a new life, made to look and feel like the early years of the second millennium, but he would not accept it. He stepped out of the lab and the lab was where it is supposed to be. There, on the street, a man in basketball shorts was peeling and eating a banana, which was, well, which was a little on the nose, but I wished for him to know that bananas were back and he could be happy again. (Right?) As were vehicles powered by fossil fuels, as was orthodontia, as was AIDS, as was lithium. For a moment, his face was the face of someone who has woken up from a dream and feels enormous relief that it is not real, what just happened.
But it didn’t last. He shook his head until his cheeks wobbled. He stamped his foot. The sidewalk began to sink and whirl beneath him.
Knew it, he shouted. No backwards from this forwards.
Up to his knees in the sidewalk, he sloshed ahead with effort and tried to touch whatever he could. The man eating the banana melted. The car melted. The German shepherd melted. Finally, the world rose above Hwang’s eyes and, after a brief burbling, he went silent.
Well. I did try.
* * *
Hwang tries to look at it this way: time jumps forward when you sleep no matter who you are.
* * *
The first time Hwang jumps forward in time, he comes out of his room into fifty years later. The time machine had caught fire, and Grishkov had had to pull him out before the sequence completed countdown. The fire spread and trapped them; they knew already that the dusty red fire extinguisher had been emptied three years ago during a prank and never refilled. Grishkov succumbed to the smoke first, bad-heart Grishkov still clutching Hwang by the forearms as he swanned to the floor. Then Hwang fainted, too.
When Hwang awakes, many people are dead and many new people are alive and everything seems somehow worse, despite all the new machines and pills and fashions.
* * *
As Hwang is drawn to his daughters, his daughters are drawn to him.
Hwang does not want to die, but there would not be a very good reason to stay alive if life was only jumping through time rapidly. (Wait.) He is now part of the time machine, and although he is broken he remains magnetized to his descendants, his daughters. Down a street, in a tree, in a bar, driving a hovercar–they always find one another. His daughters feed him, imagining that they are experiencing a random surge of kindness toward a dusty, gentle homeless man.
Hwang is guilty about this; he feels that he is enslaving his daughters and the best thing to do would be to release all of them from this obligation. That is when he does want to die.
But he decides to wait it out. He will reach the end of time. He will reach the end of daughters. Then he can end, too.
* * *
When Hwang is now, nobody knows. He is sleeping. He has been sleeping all night, his eyelids fluttering and his mouth twitching from the struggle to stay asleep. He wants time to keep moving; he doesn’t want to stop anywhere, even though the light is seeping in around the curtains and the hours turn to day. I say to him, Dad, I won’t forget. I’ll be the one who remembers the story.
Still he sleeps. I watch him still. In his mind, I am already blurring.